While Facebook and Google+ may grab most of the headlines these days, social networking pioneer LinkedIn has been quietly establishing itself as the place for professionals to meet, converse and exchange information.
That's largely driven by LinkedIn groups, communities formed around shared interests, goals or work experiences. Participating in a LinkedIn group can help you keep up to date with industry trends, make valuable contacts and establish yourself as a thought leader in your field.
But where to begin? There are more than 16,000 IT-related groups on LinkedIn -- that's a lot to wade through when trying to find those that are worth your while. And since the IT field itself is highly fragmented, it can be difficult to select the best among them, as I discovered when I asked several IT pros to name their favorite LinkedIn groups.
Not only are there groups that specialize in particular areas of IT, from hardware and networking to applications and security, but different groups have different styles that may or may not appeal to you personally. Some groups are strictly business, others more freewheeling where participants share personal information and off-topic discussions emerge. Some host a steady stream of postings with rich commentary, while others have fewer discussions.
Not all groups will be for all people, but that's the beauty of it all -- with such a wide range of groups to choose from, you're bound to find something to meet your needs.
With all that in mind, I've included seven examples of high-caliber LinkedIn groups at the end of this story. Aimed at a wide range of IT professionals and covering topics as diverse as cloud security and the convergence of medicine and wireless technology, all of these groups are professionally oriented, well-moderated and free from the spam that can sometimes turn users away.
But first, let's look at the best ways to pinpoint the right LinkedIn groups for you.
Finding participation-worthy groups
When choosing LinkedIn groups to participate in, LinkedIn experts advise, it pays to have a solid strategy, spend some time "lurking" in these groups to see what they're all about, and follow some fairly straightforward best-practice guidelines.
First, identify what you hope to gain from participation in a group. For instance: "I'd like to find a good resource for information about troubleshooting Windows-related issues," or "I'd like to learn more about HTML5 applications," or "I'd like to develop job leads for security administrator positions." Your goals will help you both narrow down the groups you choose to participate in and provide direction in terms of the posts you will ultimately make while participating in these groups.
"You should know what your expertise is and you should know the people you want to speak to," says Wayne Breitbarth, author of The Power Formula for LinkedIn Success (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2011). "If you have a process to share things in your groups and status updates that are consistent with your brand and your niche, people will see you as an expert over time."
Once you have an idea of your goals, there are three main ways to find a group, says Jan Vermeiren, founder of training consultancy Networking Coach and author of How to REALLY use LinkedIn (BookSurge Publishing, 2009).
The Groups directory
At the top of the LinkedIn home page, click the Groups menu, then enter a search term representing your desired content. You'll get a list of groups, ordered from most to least members.
"Unfortunately," explains Vermeiren, "there is no advanced search for groups yet," which can make doing this a bit challenging. My search for "IT security," for instance, brought up more than 7,000 results -- so it helps to narrow your search term as much as possible. The list you'll get will provide you with some general information about each group and its members to give you a sense of the value it might hold based on your goals.
Once you start joining groups, LinkedIn will suggest other groups that you might be interested in.
The groups that others participate in
You may already be familiar with some thought leaders in your areas of interest -- or, as you start to participate in groups, you'll identify people
You can find out by going to anyone's profile page, scrolling down and finding a list of groups that he or she belongs to. For instance, Miles Jennings is the group moderator for the CIO Network, one of the groups I'll recommend later in this piece. Scroll to the bottom of Miles' profile page and you'll find a number of groups that he participates in. If you respect Miles' opinions and share his interests, these might be good groups for you to look into as well.
Evaluating LinkedIn groups
LinkedIn members are often discouraged by groups that are frequented by spammers, blatant self-promoters and those who are primarily interested in growing their numbers of connections. But there's a lot of wheat among the chaff. Here are some clues that can provide some insights about whether a LinkedIn group is likely to be a good fit for you.
Members-only vs. open groups
Any LinkedIn member can join an open group, but a members-only group is limited to those approved by a group manager. Another important difference is that discussions created in an open group are searchable and visible to anyone on the Web and can be shared using other social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.
What's more, managers of an open group may allow LinkedIn members who aren't group members to contribute to discussions. With a members-only group, on the other hand, only members of that group can see or participate in discussions.
It's easy to tell at a glance whether a group is open or members-only: In search results or other group listings, members-only groups show a lock icon indicating their closed status, and when you click through to the group, you won't be able to see any discussions until you've been accepted into the group by a manager. With open groups, you can see the discussions right away and get a sense of the types of conversations taking place.
This ability to spy on conversations makes open groups easier to assess up front, before joining. On the other hand, members-only groups are often more focused on specific issues of relevance to the group.
Moderated vs. unmoderated groups
While every LinkedIn group has an owner (usually the person who started it), moderated groups are managed by one or more overseers who establish rules for participation, monitor conversations and try to ensure that members abide by the rules. They may even eject those who don't follow those rules.
There are many exceptions, but groups that are unmoderated -- or not moderated well -- can become like the Wild Wild West where anything goes and conversations are dominated by the most aggressive participants, often those with something to sell.
LinkedIn doesn't provide an icon like the members-only lock icon to tell you up front whether a group is moderated or not. The best way to find out is to join the group and quietly observe the discussions for awhile. If you don't find them worthwhile, you can always leave the group.
Group members you respect
When you browse through groups on LinkedIn, you'll see a list of your 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-degree connections who are part of the group, even if it's members-only. If you find a number of like-minded colleagues or people whose opinions you respect in this list, it's an indicator that the group might be right for you.
Open groups also display a box in the lower right column of the group page called "Top Influencers This Week," showing the group members whose discussions have generated the most responses. (Members-only groups have this box too, but it's not visible to non-members.) If the most active participants are thought leaders rather than spammer types, it's a good sign that the group is worth investigating further.
The number of members who belong to a group and the number of active discussions you see going on can provide some clue about the feel of a group. After all, there's no sense joining a group where all you hear is crickets chirping. On the other hand, a conversation among hundreds of participants is likely to feel less intimate -- and perhaps less targeted -- as one among just a few.
Regardless, numbers don't tell the whole story for any group. "It's not the quantity, but the quality of the discussions, the caliber of the participants, and the reach and influence of the group" that matter most when deciding which groups to participate in, says Paul Sonnier, manager of the Wireless Health group. You may find that highly moderated smaller groups provide the most relevant, specific value.
A group's value is highly predicated on the actions of the group's members. Spend any time in groups and you'll quickly get a sense for the do's and don'ts of group participation. To help you avoid making some faux pas that can quickly label you a neophyte and hinder your networking efforts, our LinkedIn experts offer these tips:
Listen first, then talk, recommends Vermeiren. "First react to discussions started by other people," he says, and only begin to initiate discussions once you have discovered the atmosphere or culture of the group.
"Never sell in a group -- that turns other people off," adds Vermeiren. "If someone asks for a supplier and you might be the right fit, don't post that in the group, but reply privately."
Be careful about cross-platform postings, warns Breitbarth. "Because of little tools like the Twitter box, you can post status updates across platforms. People are bringing way too many tweets and Facebook-type updates to LinkedIn, and that is turning business people off," he says.
LinkedIn is a business-oriented social media site -- users are unlikely to care about what you had for breakfast or how you feel today. "Post only worthy information that is very closely aligned with business objectives," says Breitbarth, and use the cross-posting tools carefully.
Best practices for group involvement
There's no doubt about it -- participating in groups can be a big drain on time. It can quickly become overwhelming if you don't have a strategy for getting the most value with the least time commitment. Both LinkedIn features and personal practices can help you maximize your time and impact.
For instance, you can turn off email notifications for discussions in the groups you participate in, says Breitbarth. "Only leave on the email notifications of the groups you think are the most important where you wouldn't want to miss a conversation," he says. And even with those important groups, it makes sense to control how often you want to be notified of discussions.
You can set these preferences when you join a group or change them later in the My Settings page for each group.
Breitbarth recommends developing a schedule of online activity, including LinkedIn status updates and group involvement. For instance, you could check in at LinkedIn to read and participate in discussions in your groups twice a day -- once at lunchtime and once just before you shut down for the day, or whatever times work best for you.
Ideas for sharing information and starting conversations can come from multiple places, notes Breitbarth, if you're alert to them. "When reading magazines and websites and going to events, step back and go, 'Is there anybody in my audience that should also know the same information?' I think you'll find a certain number of people in your audience would love to hear that same information and will appreciate you bringing it to them."
A sampling of useful IT groups
The best way to find IT-related groups that will be most valuable to you is to follow the tips above, but here's a brief selection that includes both highly trafficked and niche-focused groups. All of these groups were chosen because they are business-oriented, specific to the topic and well-moderated, providing relevant information and engaging conversations without spam.
Members: approx. 33,000
Who it's for: CIOs and other executive IT leaders (at the director and VP levels).
Most useful for: Career and leadership advice, addressing the challenges that keep CIOs up at night, from managing staff to selecting vendors.
Activity level: About a dozen posts per day; new discussions typically generate double-digit responses.
Members: approx. 23,000
Who it's for: IT professionals who are developing, purchasing or deploying cloud-based applications and are looking to understand best practices for securing their data and applications in the cloud. Also for pros looking for ways to leverage the cloud to improve the security of all forms of computing.
Most useful for: Learning about specific technologies and best practices, getting advice about deployment scenarios, and finding out about regulations and news specific to various countries or geographies. Industry research, news, and events are shared regularly.
Activity level: About 40 people join in a typical week. Discussions are posted frequently -- often up to 20 new discussions a day -- and generate quick responses from members, ranging from the double digits into the hundreds.
Members: approx. 7,000
Who it's for: IT professionals supporting desktop users; not platform-limited.
Most useful for: Finding solutions to unusual desktop support problems, product recommendations, career issues such as the job availability and recruitment policies, and information about new or changing technologies that impact the profession.
Activity level: A dozen or so messages (including new discussions and responses) a day, with intermittent highs and lows. Very few discussions in this group go beyond more than 30 or 40 comments; most are only a dozen or so comments deep.
Members: approx. 60,000
Who it's for: For CIOs, CTOs, information architects, IT strategists and others interested in sharing information and learning about issues related to the overall management of their IT operations.
Most useful for: High-level, strategic discussions about the enterprise architecture issues faced by organizations, from virtualization to the growing popularity of tablets and other mobile devices.
Activity level: Extremely active group. Dozens of new discussions created each day, often generating several hundred responses.
Members: approx. 52,000
Who it's for: For IT specialists or IT professionals involved with the operational issues of running computer systems and meeting user needs.
Most useful for: Exploring technical questions that have an impact on productivity, operations and user satisfaction.
Activity level: High; members post frequently (about 10 to 20 discussions created daily), and most posts receive dozens to hundreds of comments.
Members: approx. 1,000
Who it's for: Businesses who use or are interested in Office 365; many Microsoft personnel are participants in the group.
Most useful for: Useful for learning and sharing information with others involved in assessing, installing, migrating or otherwise using Microsoft's Office 365 cloud-based software suite.
Activity level: Low. Most questions are very specific and generate a handful of responses with targeted advice.
Members: approx. 6,500
Who it's for: Those interested in how wireless technology can benefit healthcare and medical research.
Most useful for: Exploring the intersection of wireless technology and healthcare, with a global perspective.
Activity level: About a dozen posts a day, primarily links to relevant research and news stories. Most conversations are initiated by the group owner and generally receive fewer than 10 responses, but the group provides a great way to keep tabs on mobile healthcare advances and issues.